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A few questions regarding ASR’s new reef in Kovalam, India

May 15 2010 | Artificial reefs, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

ASR, the company behind the recent artificial surfing reef installation in Boscombe, England (which isn't working as advertised) has unveiled a new reef in India. The video they circulated looks very good. A few people have asked our opinion on it and the related marketing of this reef.

The truth is that we'd rather not weigh in on this reef this early as it's quite dangerous to label a reef a success or failure without the test of time, use, consistency and results. ASR has chosen to not wait and circulated a video that illustrates a solid, barreling left, suggesting the India project is overwhelming success out of the gate. This, over promising and under delivering, seems to be a systemic issue at ASR. With six artificial surfing reefs installed on globe and none of them attracting surfers in any notable way and the major surf mags ridiculing the promise/delivery results of reefs to-date... it may have made more sense to take a wait and see attitude and let an organic voice of support bubble up on the internet. One thing is clear, the recent change of ownership at ASR has fueled a savvy and directed promotional campaign.

This reef may be the best "new" wave created on the planet and it might not be. It's certainly way too early to tell. Let's all wait a bit of time before we label it either. In the meantime I have a few questions for ASR regarding this installation. To be fair and transparent I will post their response in it's entirety on my blog.

1. What did this location look like prior to the reef?

Give us some context for this reef. It's too easy to take a video of a few days prior (with no swell) and call it normal and then another video (when a swell is hitting) and suggest that's the new normal... but I'm pretty sure Pipeline isn't firing right now and I'm also sure that it will snap back to attention with the right swell.

One of the challenges here is that the reef is installed in an area that is very, very remote. This contributes to a lack of transparency on this project (which feeds suspicion). The truth is that we have zero idea what this area looked like prior. The videos show a left peeling off a left point, that makes sense... points cause waves to break in this way. But what did this wave look like prior?

2. What was the business case for installing this reef?

Many of us have traveled enough of the world to know that there are surfers in many places we didn't know had surfers. But if there was no wave here, were there surfers? If yes, where were they? Related, why did the town spend the equivalent of millions of dollars to put this reef in? I'm guessing at the million dollar figure but it's an educated guess as I can't point to a reef anywhere on the globe of this scale with a lower total cost... but do tell us the total cost of the reef installation (design fees, materials, labor, installation, etc).

Further, can we see the business case for this reef so we can compare it to other artificial reef business cases like the one for the proposed reef in Florida? (which was voted down due to it not being remotely able to deliver a return on investment, read this case study for that business case, pg 51 of the Brevard County Multi-Purpose Artificial Surfing Reef, Feasibility Study. Final Report.).

Was the business case focused on delivering a wave or was it more focused on erosion control? Those are related but they aren't the same thing. The reef wasn't free, please help us understand why this reef was put in a seemingly very remote area, who paid for it, and what results they are expecting for this investment.

3. Did ASR build this wave or did ASR groom an existing wave?

The left point break suggests there was something there prior. Was it a poorly formed, crumbly mushy wave or was it flat as a lake all the time? The "build or groom" question is relevant, because they are two, fairly radically, different technological challenges.

The marketing materials clearly suggest the wave was built by ASR but I'm sensing this was done for simplicity in of messaging. If the wave was "built" that suggests that there was nothing there prior and (insert a lot of massive plastic bags filled with sand) presto a contest worthy left is formed. So please share some deeper detail... was the wave groomed by ASR or was it created?

4. What is the consistency of this "new" break? (webcam please)

The video is impressive yet I can point to an impressive video of the wave at the end of my street... but it rarely ever looks like that. It'd be great to have a live webcam on the wave 24/7 so the world can see when it's breaking and not have to take other people's opinions on consistency as gospel. This is 2010, pop a web cam on it. People put web cams to watch their dogs while they are at work, this seems like a legitimate application for a cam.

We all know that it's incredibly easy to swamp a blog comment section with positive or negative comments... my guess is a number of us would like to check in on this new wave. Namely, a few of the people that left more than 200 comments on this artificial reef blog are quite interested in seeing a mad-made reef work. We'd all like to see this wave break like the video suggests (with some regularity/consistency) before we label it successful. Even if it doesn't break with great consistency it could still be a good wave... but it's impossible to know without seeing. This should be fairly easy to do and would be a good marketing hook for ASR. A web cam and a small server would cost a few thousand dollars which, in the scheme of a million dollar wave, is nothing.

5. When you say "erosion control" what do you mean?

We all know that reefs take power out of a swell hitting the coast. That's logical to surfers as we feel that power. Further it's certainly possible for a submerged break wall infrastructure (essentially what an artificial reef is) to have a positive impact on stemming erosion. That said, we also know sand movement is a zero sum game.

If we put something in place to add sand to one area it is, by definition, coming from another area. What are the details on the "erosion control" argument and what is the reality of the results?

Related, is the erosion being addressed "on" the point itself? As the diagram (number 1) to the right suggests, erosion usually is less severe near the point (think of Rincon, Swamis, Kirra, Malibu, etc).

The erosion happens downstream from the point. Adding an artificial reef, to either groom an existing wave or create a new wave, would likely have minimal effect on the point itself. Was there an erosion problem downstream? If so, is there documentation that can help us understand that impact and if there was a sand give/take relationship with other nearby beaches. To be clear, I'm not suggesting an artificial reef can't slow erosion as, like a sea wall or any other structure, I'm sure it can. I'm just suggesting it's not simple, if sand is gained somewhere it's lost elsewhere. Can you please share more detail regarding more detail on the claim and related erosion information on nearby/downstream areas.

5. What is the expected life of the reef and materials?

I think most of us tend not to look at the long term issues related to these kinds of installations in a natural environment. We're staring at a peeling left and our mind thinks it's a coral/rock reef underneath. But what's underneath this wave is plastic bags. What we've seen is that these bags under normal wear and tear of ocean currents and swells they have a life expectancy of about 10 - 20 years (regardless of manufacturers claims). Once they wear out they are not easy to take out. People think "what's the big deal, swim down to the reef, cut the bag open and let the sand out." If life were only that simple.

Construction and deconstruction projects in the ocean, with currents, tides and swells to contend with, is not an easy task (think of the Gulf for a quick picture, yes that an entirely different scenario but they share a dynamic work environment of water and waves). Construction and deconstruction on ocean environments is quite dangerous and costly. Our estimation is that for every dollar invested to put a reef in and equal amount should be budgeted to take it out if it moves, fails to deliver results or causes unforeseen damage. Look at the photos of the most recent reef installed in England, it's moving. Eventually, someday... these plastic bags will need to be replaced or taken out. Anything different than taking them out (even if just to replace them) is more plastic litter in our oceans.

In many ways I'm a geek. I've spent the last twenty years creating technology-solutions to address big ideas. Artificial surfing reefs are, in many ways, close to my past. That said, I see this technology a bit differently. First I see the natural environment that they are being put into. We're all laughing out loud when we hear about BP's idea to put plastic garbage into a hole in the sea floor... yet the idea of putting plastic bags to cause a wave to form is somehow a good idea. Let's just be honest, this is as un-natural as snow-making equipment. My second issue with artificial surfing reefs is the simple truth that after a couple decades of research and development... there has yet to be a legitimate success that attracts surfers. But because we're surfers we dream... and that fuels what I see as ongoing, unbridled enthusiasm surrounding artificial reef technology.

Let's consider protecting the waves we already have before we put plastic bags in the ocean to try to create new ones. Let's redouble our efforts to never lose another wave. Here is a network of chapters that do this but there are also other groups doing this, connect with any of them.

Twenty five years ago a few people came together to fight to preserve Malibu. They won and formed Surfrider Foundation in the process. Fast forward to today and there are volunteers in more than a dozen countries doing this same thing. They do this because the truism "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" rings true for waves. That is, before you think that artificial reefs will lessen crowds (they won't), stop erosion (maybe) and deliver perfect, peeling waves (the six that exist on the globe have proven the exact opposite) we suggest you value the waves you're already surfing as priceless.

Sure, we can all dream about how insane it would be to create Rincon's and Kirra's at will. Let's stay grounded in reality as we move ahead, there WILL be successful artificial surfing reefs and there WILL be more failures. In the meantime, if you want to secure a wave, fight to protect the ones you already surf.

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